Today, as expected, was a long day. We have finally checked into an overpriced guesthouse in south Colombo, a converted former embassy building that has still retained its large verandah, heavy wooden furniture and high-ceilinged colonial character; tucked away in the quiet, leafy embassy district of town, it is a welcome respite from the manic streets of the Galle strip. I am relived to be laid in a comfortable bed but still in a minor state of shock at the thick, humid heat that hit us like a wall as we stepped off the plane. Above me, the much-needed ceiling-fan wobbles dangerously as it spins. It is my first experience of the nightly act of faith that is required to bed down underneath the heavy spinning blades that are plastered to a cracking ceiling.
It is quite an experience to arrive in Colombo after a ten hour direct flight from Heathrow and I am keen to experience our new surroundings. However, our extended wait in the empty marble arrivals hall for our bags to come through had given nothing away, and beyond the duty-free electrical goods store and the handful of bored looking soldiers at customs, we were still yet to clap eyes on Sri Lanka until we were dropped right in the middle of it.
We had been sold our tickets into town by a drunk kid who had poached us right from the door of the terminal and had ushered us into a deserted bus yard where his friends were all lazing about, viewing our oversized bags and still-white skin like we were catch of the day. And we probably were. Even at this very earliest stage in our trip I felt instantly uneasy when being told to make ourselves comfortable and offered a drink in the back of this empty bus- not because of any real safety concerns, you understand, but more because I felt like we were about to be sold an insurance plan or a new house. All the curtains were closed and, away from other bus-owners willing to step in and undercut his ‘friend-price’ offers, the negotiations for our tickets started. Two thousand Rupees each was his opening shot- he was really going for in for the kill with us. Flat refusal on our part gradually dropped this down to an eventual one thousand each, at which point he offered us included services with anything we wanted:
“Food”, he offered in his shaky and slurring English, “driiink, alcoohol…”
He quieted down to an almost whisper as he leaned it with a naughty-schoolboy grin.
These enticements were wasted on us. Alec and I had instantly decided, speaking as quickly as we could to evade his moderate English, that this guy was taking the piss. Two thousand Rupee was, at the time, about ten pounds; almost as much as my train ticket to London had cost me the day before. It was time to pull the old ‘walk-away’ tactic, a trick that is probably as old-hat as trying to mug ignorant tourists like he was doing.
It works in a London market. It also works in Sri Lanka.
The fare settled at five hundred each, and the money handed over, he instantly lost interest in playing the accommodating host and duly took a snooze in the passenger seat with his feet out the window. As the fuzzy, less-than-polished Bollywood sounds struggled out the dusty speakers by our feet, the bus began to fill up with podgy women in sarees and skinny men in short-sleeved shirts and with pens in their breast-pockets.
The very first thing that struck me about Colombo was how chaotic it felt. Getting out of the bus station alone seemed to offer a crash-course in how not to get mown down or piled into another bus to some other destination by the seriously enthusiastic fixers that lean out the bus doors. Coercing with any English available and animatedly chanting the name of their destination in quick-fire Sinhala babble, these guys are unsurprisingly drawn to white, foreign skin for exactly the same reason as our earlier friend was. As a result, it’s very hard not to feel like the entire bus station is yelling at you and only you. My initial attempts to extend my best foot forward and politely decline every offer that tugged at my sleeve lasted most of the way to the main road, but not much further. As a re-occurring theme over the next five months, I noted with great interest which of my western, British habits of personal conduct were shed, and how long they took to be dispensed with. ‘Pleases’ and ‘thank-you’s’, putting my litter in bins, replying to spontaneous introductions from strangers, wearing pants, using bed sheets, applying sun-cream and carrying any more than three items of clothing would all cease in time. How long these would take to be jettisoned, I was yet to find out.
For now, though, we were in the thick of it and reeling in this new brand of manic that we were experiencing. The main road was a slow-moving, four-lane jumble of tuk-tuks, motorbikes and push-bikes, interspersed with the occasional minibus, police-car and hand-pulled cart, creating an almighty hum of rattley engines, multi-tone honking, dust and exhaust. At times the traffic would slow to such a crawl that tuk-tuk drivers would lean out of their open vehicles and talk to their colleagues across lanes, reaching out to snatch handshakes and exchange a few words, their bare feet dangling out the side of the cars while their fares sat behind them, clutching hankies and sarees to their mouths against the choking exhaust fumes. Weaving and wobbling in and out of these encounters, the stripped-thin push-bikes tinkled their bells over the cacophony like a triangle over an orchestra.
The pavements are only slightly less of a jumble. The rush-hour commuters squeeze and barge past each other like an ebbing and flowing river of white shirts as they flood to and from the train-station, edging between the street hawkers perched on the roadside railings selling bags of nuts wrapped in old homework papers and the man selling sandals against the wall. We push through the swell with our heavy bags being knocked and dragged around behind us, eventually making it through to a side street and away from the main artery of people. We continue south towards what we think is a guesthouse in the gathering orange and pink dusk, and down the Galle road.
As we were beginning to learn, Colombo seems to be full of cars and tuk-tuk drivers out to swindle you if you have somewhere specific to be and no idea how to get there. Our attempts to walk down to a less central location and bed up for the night were marred by a spectacular willingness of almost everybody we talked to take us down there themselves for some ridiculous fee rather than save us the bother of doing it ourselves. Upon pressing repeatedly the fact that we just wanted to know where this place was and not a tuk-tuk down there, the conversation was almost universally terminated with a south-ward wave and a swift exit. This wouldn’t have actually been a problem, had we had a half-decent map to reply on. However, as it was, there was only the Lonely Planet small-scale map of the entire city, which was something akin to having a map that lists Paddington Station as only a couple of blocks from the Millennium Dome. Travel lesson number one learned- Avoid relying on Lonely Planet maps.
An hour and a half, after many changed destinations, hopelessly overcharged tuk-tuk rides and lost street-wanderings, we met a nice shirt-and-shoed lad called Sanjith who was sat, minding his own business under a tree on a side-street in the dark. He went well out of his way to take us to our latest destination and showed us to our guest house, in which we are now sat.
‘I like to walk, you see’.